Thursday, July 02, 2015

The Great Flamarion


1945, US, directed by Anthony Mann

You wonder what must have gone through von Stroheim's mind as he strutted his stuff in fare like this, but to give him his due he always seems fully invested no matter the circumstances and there are moments of genuine poignancy as his character, a stage shooting performer, realizes just how badly he's been had. There's a Double Indemnity vibe to it all, including the narrative, which is almost all in flashback, though the film can't match the cynicism of its predecessor. It's a very early entry in Mann's development as a filmmaker, too, and while there are a couple of nice set-pieces, especially the tense sequences when von Stroheim performs his routine, as well as the visually striking scene when he's interrupted during a practice session.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Strange Impersonation


1946, US, directed by Anthony Mann

The title is entirely apt for this borderline-insane plot that involves love rivals/disfigurement/assumed identities. More than once I had to mentally re-run the narrative twists and turns just to keep up -- especially because the pace is so brisk, as befits a picture under the Republic banner. Despite the complexities of the tale, Mann draws us in with just  a few brisk strokes, the narrative economy paralleling the overall low budget without seeming cheap, and he's clearly beginning to develop his distinctive visual style with this picture. Apart from one minor character who proved quite astonishingly irritating, my only reservation came with the film's big reveal, using a trick that popped up in several films in the mid-1940s.

Monday, June 29, 2015

T-Men


1947, US, directed by Anthony Mann

I don't have near as much time to watch films as I'd like, so brisk films from the high point of the Hollywood era have a great deal of appeal in terms of their running length alone, though directors like Anthony Mann do a lot more than go through the motions. While his strengths are more formal and visual, especially in this period, he's also capable of extracting a solid performance when the material demands it. Dennis O'Keefe, for instance, is a lot more interesting here than in the following year's Raw Deal, playing what is in some senses a dual role as a straight and narrow government agent who goes undercover. As the film progresses, he has to convince both his criminal contacts and the audience that he's a capable and potentially ruthless operator. There's a real tension to the undercover sequences, and a fine appreciation of the personal sacrifices necessary in that line of work. And the photography is just wonderful -- my favourite shot, from a parade of possibilities, looks up at the bottom of a sink as O'Keefe tries to get a key item into his pocket while he's under close watch from his increasingly suspicious confederates.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Tomboy



2011, France, directed by Céline Sciamma

This one had me from the opening shot, beautiful on both the visual and the emotional levels. Céline Sciamma got a good deal of attention this year with the US release of Bande de filles, and I hoped to see her back catalog from the beginning but couldn't find her début, La Naissance des pieuvres. This film focuses on a youngster dealing with gender identity issues, and Sciamma's method of treating the subject matter, focusing almost entirely on the child and with very little dialogue, is exceptionally effective and often strikingly funny/emotionally rich. 


I was also fascinated by her depiction of the relationship between the film's siblings, perhaps because I'm so affected by the growing evidence of a complicity between my children. Although the children have a good deal of latitude in this tale of summer, parents are nonetheless present and often very warm and involved, but this isn't a story from their perspective -- and nor is it, strictly speaking, a coming of age film with a neat developmental arc but rather an ongoing puzzling through, a snapshot in a longer process of self-discovery. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Summer With Monika


1953, Sweden, directed by Ingmar Bergman

Quite a surprise, mainly because I had misread the film schedule and thought I was sitting down to watch a film set in nineteenth-century Patagonia rather than one of Bergman's first major successes, although ultimately a pleasure to finally see one of them on the big screen. It's a (deliberately) straightforward film in many ways, but also one of striking insights -- the commentary on the relationship tensions created by parenthood is especially strong without being heavy-handed (it's not a theme that cinema has dealt with in great detail beyond the cliché) and the picture of Stockholm life in the 1950s across social classes is very finely observed (there are also several beguiling shots in the early going). 

The Man Who Never Was


1956, US, directed by Ronald Neame

More evidence that suggests Ronald Neame hasn't quite been given his due as a director, without by the same token attempting to elevate him to the pantheon. The film is a reasonably straightforward account of the Second World War Operation Mincemeat, which was designed to deceive Germany about Allied intentions in the Mediterranean. Although made with the blessing/collaboration of some of those involved a decade or so earlier, this isn't wholly faithful to reality, with some elements significantly altered or invented for dramatic purposes as well as out of a desire to preserve some of the secrets at the core of the story. Nonetheless, I found it quite engaging despite the distraction of Clifton Webb's accent -- he doesn't really make much of an attempt to sound like anything other than Clifton Webb, against the usual jolly-good-show backdrop (Gloria Grahame's accent, by contrast, can be explained away by plot mechanics). Neame shows considerable delicacy of touch at times, choosing to allow the camera to linger for extended periods during key scenes either to give us an idea of the methodical work involved in implementing a project of this sensitive nature or to allow particular moments of drama to play out without interruption; the technique gives the film a good deal of additional emotional heft. 

Monday, June 15, 2015

Tip Top


2013, France/Belgium, directed by Serge Bozon

As was the case in his previous feature, Serge Bozon brings together unexpected elements, marrying a criminal investigation with a loopy screwball vibe and a vein of political commentary. On this occasion I'm more guarded on his success, although these elements are not all actually in opposition to one another: since the balance is always off-kilter, he's not veering wildly from one tone to another though I'm still not sure the particular and quite consistent tone is wholly suited to the material. There's a vein of quite stringent political commentary -- on Franco-Algerian relations and interactions -- that gets a lost from view at times even though I think Bozon places a good deal of value on this, simply because the comic mode distracts although in the end his point may be more about the overarching context of politico-social absurdity (in the manner of, say, Bong Joon-ho's Memories of Murder). The plot involves Isabelle Huppert and Sandrine Kiberlain investigating the investigation ("la police des police") into the death of a police informer in Lille, though Bozon is at least as interested in the behaviour of his leads, each of whom has a distinctive sexual peccadillo, which is also a matter of narrative interest. Bozon certainly has Huppert and Kiberlain go through the wringer in the service of his film -- if I hadn't seen the earlier film, I might think he had a somewhat unhealthy desire to showcase his female stars in rather humiliating scenarios -- though Huppert is more than game for what she has to do, while Kiberlain's character is quite exquisitely uncomfortable at times. The offbeat tone of the film is often underline by Bozon's visual choices: he likes to play with the setup angles so that the eyeline match is off, a very disconcerting visual trick in one early interrogation scene that helps to destabilize the entire enterprise. He does the same in La France to equally good effect -- there emphasizing the untrustworthiness of a particular character. In both films, too, he does a fair amount of tableau framing -- especially for some of the musical sequences in the earlier film -- and he also has fun in the second film with scenes filmed in cars, where the backdrop doesn't quite match the action. It's certainly quite carefully thought through on the visual level even if the ideas are a bit muddled.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

La France


2007, France, directed by Serge Bozon

Serge Bozon appeared poised to break out, at least on the critical front, with this film but he hasn't been all that active in the interim despite the strengths on display in this  tale of a young woman who goes in search of her husband after she receives a cryptic letter from the front in 1917, disguising herself as a man in order to begin her odyssey and quickly linking up with a small group of soldiers who have been separated from their regiment. The war, obviously, is a constant presence whether it's through the men's accounts of their experiences, their fear of running across spies or enemy soldiers and, from time to time, the rumble of heavy artillery in the distance, but we never see the front lines -- this is a different kind of war story, and one where Bozon quite consciously wants to evoke our imagination of the trenches without depicting them. 


To my mind, the strongest French-language analogy is with Maurice Pialat's La Maison des bois, particularly the episode in which a battalion of troops passes through town -- a visible sign of the war but without any direct depiction of the fight. Bozon, like Pialat, is also strong on the bone-weariness of these men, but unlike Pialat he doesn't hew to a strictly realist template, interspersing the film with unusual and anachronistic musical interludes that nonetheless do an effective job of channeling and enhancing the humanity of the men we gradually get to know. I was very impressed by the film, and by the performances -- Testud is excellent as the coltish "boy" while many of the actors playing the soldiers have striking moments in the sun, gifted some fine lines by Bozon.



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Boston, Massachusetts, United States